The invention of the contraceptive pill has transformed the lives of women allowing for more freedom, choice and for the progression of equal rights. The expectations of women before the pill were different; they were to stay at home and raise a family while the man worked. Different things were expected of men too; with pre-pill contraceptive methods largely reliant on the male, if a woman became pregnant then he was expected to marry her. Fewer people cohabitated without marriage and there were more shotgun weddings.
Russell Marker, Carl Djerassi and start-up company Syntex changed all that.
Russell Marker was a chemistry professor working at Pennsylvania State College. His research led him to make degraded structures of sex hormones and devised chemistry that worked on sarsasapogenin. Releasing sapogenin, however, was expensive and Marker found that a Mexican yam could be used to make progesterone from diosgenin in just five chemical steps, and the synthesis for the contraceptive pill was born.
Unfortunately, Marker wasn’t able to attract any interest from US Pharmaceutical companies in his discovery. This may have been because many US states had strict birth control laws or because many religious groups in society protested that oral contraceptives were a form of abortion. So, Marker headed across the border to Mexico where he teamed up with Emeric Somlo and Federico Lehmann to set up Syntex in 1944.
Marker continued his synthesis work for a while but left Syntex after a series of disagreements. George Rosenkranz replaced him and a few years later was joined by Carl Djerassi, often referred to as the ‘father of the pill’. Using Markers’ diosgenin, Syntex became the leading supplier of sex hormones including progesterone, testosterone and various oestrogens.
Djerassi and Rosenkranz continued research and two unconnected discoveries, one by Schering in Germany and the other by Maximillian Ehrenstein at the University of Pennsylvania, led to the development of 19-norprogesterone which was the cornerstone leading to the patent that was filed in November 1951 for the first contraceptive pill.
Extensive clinical trials took place in Puerto Rico with huge successes and the pill was deemed 100% effective preventing pregnancies, but some serious side-effects were ignored. In 1957 the FDA approved use of the pill but only for use in women to treat severe menstrual disorders, which in turn led to unusually large numbers of women reporting same.
The first prescriptions for the pill were written in the UK in 1961 after clinical trails in London, Birmingham and Slough. The UK Health Minister of the time announced that married women could access it through the NHS but it wasn’t until the NHS Family Planning Act was passed in 1967 that oral contraceptives were able to be accessed more widely.
Increased accessibility of the contraceptive pill created more opportunity for women who were better able to control their fertility and decide when, and if, they wanted to have children. Women began to turn their attention to education and building their own careers. Protecting against unwanted pregnancy also meant that illegal and unsafe abortions were less likely. But the pill remained controversial and in 1969 The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill by Barbara Seaman was published, exposing the risk of blood clots, heart attack, stroke, depression, weight gain and loss of libido.
70 years after its creation, the pill and its benefits are still widely debated. Some say that it shifted the responsibility of family planning to women and that men are no longer concerned about the risk of pregnancy. That it has encouraged ‘free love’ and increased the risk of STI’s.
But other’s claim that it has been an important milestone in women’s equality and has enabled women to build careers and delay both marriage and motherhood.
In 2019 The Guardian reported that the pill is the most prescribed contraception in the UK with more than 3.1 million women taking either the combined or mini pill. Director and Patent Attorney Dr Lambert says “The story of the pill is an example of the hard road often travelled by innovators, inventors, visionaries and game changers. The danger is that someone else waits until you have done all of the hard yards and piggybacks off your hard work and inspiration. Patents are a very powerful tool to prevent this happening and to enable you to get reward from innovation”
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